Monday, March 14, 2011

Maybe the sky really is falling

It turns out that chickens feel your pain.  Or at least they feel each other's pain, researchers at the University of Bristol in the UK have determined.  The story has been reported all over, including here.
When chicks were exposed to puffs of air, they showed signs of distress that were mirrored by their mothers. The hens' heart rate increased, their eye temperature lowered - a recognised stress sign - and they became increasingly alert. Levels of preening were reduced, and the hens made more clucking noises directed at their chicks.
These results were published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B on Mar 9.

The authors say that empathy evolved for parental care-taking, and that this must explain why hens feel for their young.  But, how do we know it's empathy and not fear that their young will be harmed?  Fierce parental care-taking is evident in a whole host of animals, more and less primitive than chickens, and it is certainly arguable that empathy has nothing to do with it.

Not to mention that not all humans are empathetic.  If empathy evolved 'for' parent caretaking so long ago that chickens have it, there should be no variance in humans by now, but there clearly is.

And, even if chickens are empathic, the fact that anyone is surprised that birds might have emotions represents, to us, a human exceptionalism that is unwarranted.  Who hasn't seen a sheepish, embarrassed dog?  And vengeful birds are well-documented.  

The authors conclude that the ability to suffer with others should be taken into account in the way chickens are farmed -- the fact that they are empathic means that they shouldn't be slaughtered in front of each other, for example, or otherwise mistreated.

But that's a strange argument.  Why shouldn't they be well-treated on their own merits, because they can suffer?

Of course, human exceptionalism allows empathetic beings (us) to slaughter and eat other beings.  Thinking that the rest of 'creation' is there for our pleasures, as apparently the loving God mandated, is very convenient, isn't it?  But as evolutionary biologists we know very well that nothing comes of nothing, and nothing complex arises de novo without antecedents.  Almost everything we find in genetics or phenotypes, comes as an initial surprise and then we learn that it's been around for hundreds of millions of years.  This has been true of so many things, but examples are RNA interference (antisense RNA), the immune system, and more--basically any system that is complex in humans.

So of course other animals have some versions of what we experience as consciousness, as well as other mental attributes!  As the saying goes, if it walks and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck.  So chickens with emotions?  Naturally!  How could we be surprised?

1 comment:

James Goetz said...

I suppose that I'm empathetic while after reading this I'm still going to enjoy eating the leftover chicken that I cooked yesterday. Also, I'll thank the Lord for it.